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Aileen O'Sullivan

Director, Producer

Aileen O'Sullivan's family were of Irish and Scottish heritage, and placed great stead on storytelling. Dunedin-born O’Sullivan soon learned that "if you’re going to tell a story, make it a good one!" The ethos has guided her work as a director; she took 'seannachie' — Gaelic for storyteller — as the name of her production company.  

O’Sullivan’s future profession didn’t exist when she left school in Dunedin in the early 1960s. Traditional careers for women of teacher, secretary or nurse held little appeal. A year as an American Field Scholar in El Paso, Texas, introduced her to other international students expecting to further their studies. She enrolled at Canterbury University, graduating with a Bachelor of Artsw in politics in 1965.

O'Sullivan's first daughter was born in 1967, when she was 24. There would soon be four children under five. She gained practical journalism experience writing netball reports for newspaper The Press. After the family moved to Wellington, she began to look for creative outlets as her children grew older. Helping a kindergarten teacher friend act out stories with her class reawakened an interest in performance and directing. 

O'Sullivan trained to become a teacher, but was wary of overcommitting herself as a working mother. Instead, she asked Radio New Zealand for a job, and began editing and packaging overnight reports from foreign correspondents, before becoming a producer on Morning Report — and also the first woman to read the news on National Radio. She credits RNZ’s sub-editors with teaching her the nuts and bolts of journalism: the importance of structure, and knowing the right questions to ask. 

In 1975, she was cast as Governor George Grey’s niece Annie in historical TV drama The Governor; she was nominated for a Feltex Award. The programme attracted political outrage at supposed overspending, but O’Sullivan prefers to remember the palpable excitement of a cast and crew telling "one of our stories" on a big scale. She also guested on soap Close to Home, and did a season as a reporter for People Like Us

She moved into drama at Radio New Zealand and began producing radio plays in Wellington, then Auckland. RNZ was starting to record local scripts, as it moved away from its roots in the english repertory tradition. O’Sullivan looked for ways to include Māori writers and actors, running workshops and eventually directing Aotearoa’s first radio drama in te reo.

In theatres a similar push to tell local stories was underway. Inspired by this, and seeking to expand her stage credentials, she arranged a three-month internship at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre. When RNZ turned down her request for leave, Creative NZ offered funding for an attachment to act and direct for a year. She stayed at Mercury for two, playing the lead in classic comedy She Stoops to Conquer, and directing a succession of New Zealand premieres, including Renée's Setting the Table 

In 1982, Television New Zealand advertised what would be its final training course for drama directors and producers. O’Sullivan was selected for one of two directing places. The intensive three-month course was run by Brian Bell; his charges were given free access to fully resourced studio and location shoots. Before it had finished, O’Sullivan was offered directing work on TVNZ’s ambitious new 'supersoap' Gloss (including helming this early appearance by screen heart-throb Kevin Smith). 

She remembers it as a baptism by fire. Mastering the complexities of TV’s technical processes was challenge enough, but she was also working with a large ensemble of actors in a fast turnaround environment. The time theatre allowed to get inside a script was an unaffordable luxury, but there were compensations in working with an enthusiastic cast and crew who shone under pressure.

O’Sullivan directed on all three seasons of Gloss, but the show proved to be one of the final productions for TVNZ’s drama department, which closed as the broadcaster became a state-owned enterprise. O’Sullivan had never known job security, so the transition to jobbing director wasn’t traumatic. Her resume soon included a stint in Australia working on hit show A Country Practice. In 1990 she directed the "humble, talented" Billy T James for all 26 episodes of his sitcom, set in a radio station.

Although drama directing was rewarding, O’Sullivan was growing interested in the possibilities of telling stories of her choosing. She learnt the basics of documentary directing on TVNZ travel show Holiday, and built on them to add documentary to her drama directing. Her subsequent work has encompassed a variety of subjects and styles, guided by a belief that "the story is what I respond to, and then the format to suit".

With It’s in the Genes Girls, O'Sullivan explored nature versus nurture. The documentary assembles three sets of artistically-oriented mothers and daughters at a candlelit dinner party. As writer Deborah Shepherd observed, such private moments "aren’t easily achieved on the screen ... the spontaneity appears to be the direct result of Aileen’s decision to allow the artiststo be their own interviewers". O'Sullivan could have found parallels in her own family. Her daughters RebeccaKatrina and Jessica, and son Chris Hobbs have variously worked on both sides of the camera. When Jessica won an Emmy for directing The Crown in 2021, she spoke of standing on the shoulders of "extraordinary people", and paid tribute to the fact her mother was still directing.

In the mid 1990s O'Sullivan made this documentary on author Witi Ihimaera. O’Sullivan kept up her multi-camera directing skills working with Brian Edwards on a trio of epic-length Great New Zealand Showdown specials, which used hypothetical scenarios and audience participation to explore issues of family, honesty and sexuality. She talks about both the Showdowns and the Ihimaera doco in this video interview.

In 2002, while tutoring at The New Zealand Film School, she wrote, directed and produced Spring Flames, a 25-minute drama about the 1947 Ballantynes department store fire in Christchurch. 

O'Sullivan produced two documentaries directed by Toby Mills (An Inside StoryThe Family). The two co-directed for the first time in 2005, with 70-minute documentary Black Grace – From Canon’s Creek to Jacob's Pillow. The project began after she witnessed Neil Ieremia’s dance company in action. Like the best stories, she had a visceral response — something went up her spine as she watched Māori and Pasifika dancers celebrate "where they come from, who they are and how they move" — a story they wanted to tell. The result won Ken Sparks an NZ Screen Award for his editing.

O'Sullivan collaborated once more with Mills (and Sparks) for 2021's Whetū Mārama - Bright Star. The feature-length documentary examines the many achievements of waka builder Hekenukumai 'Hek' Busby. She heard about Busby from Toby Mills, and was intrigued by the idea of a culture for whom "tūpuna, ancestors were very much alive and with them ... I thought the world could do with a story like that — a story that took us away from selfies and cell phones and took us to sea."

In 2011 O'Sullivan directed and produced the feature-length Ngaio Marsh – Crime Queen, for TV One. Faced with the challenge of telling the story of a deceased novelist, she knew she had to "to bring life to the screen". O'Sullivan enlisted actor Peter Elliott to recreate Marsh’s protagonist, gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn. They visited Marsh’s London haunts and connected with her remaining social milieu in Christchurch. Press critic Trevor Agnew called it "a masterpiece".

O'Sullivan was also one of the producers of 2008 TV movie Life's a Riot, alongside Ross and Carmel Jennings. Set in the heart of the depression, the Ian Mune-directed drama tells the story of "total maverick" Jim Edwards, who as leader of the Unemployed Workers Union, led the biggest riot in Kiwi history.  

Among her projects in development is short film Let Your Sisters Be, a tale of abuse which aims to be a tool for education and healing.

Aileen O’Sullivan loves stories; hearing them, reading them, telling them. "It's been exciting and a huge privilege to have been involved in bringing New Zealand voices, Pākehā, Māori and Polynesian, to the air, the stage and to the screen”.  

Profile written by Michael Higgins; updated on 23 May 2022  

Sources include 
Aileen O'Sullivan
Seannachie Productions website. Accessed 14 October 2016
Let Your Sisters Be website. Accessed 20 September 2021
'Aileen O'Sullivan: The journey from acting to behind the camera' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 24 January 2017. Accessed 24 January 2017
Steve Newall, 'Aileen O'Sullivan talks about Māori navigation documentary Whetū Mārama - Bright Star' (Interview) Flicks website. 10 November 2021. Accessed 23 May 2022
Deborah Shepard, reframing Women - A history of New Zealand film (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000)
'Ep 12 - The inspiring and eloquent Aileen O'Sullivan - a singular documentary maker' (Podcast Interview) Podtail website. Loaded 15 April 2016. Accessed 14 October 2016